Anatomy of a Food Label

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Decode the nutrition facts label to make better choices for your health!

We’ve all seen the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) required nutrition facts label on packaged foods, but what information does it really give you to make smart choices for your health? Here’s a breakdown of the label with tips on how to read between the lines to get the most accurate facts. You may be surprised to discover something new about the labels you’ve been reading for years!

From the Top

Usually the most sought-after information on the nutrition facts label, you’ll find serving size and calories listed at the top. Be careful here as both can be misleading. Calories are listed by serving (not package) and there may be multiple servings, even in small packages. For example, manufacturers will sometimes list “2” under number of servings for a package that is clearly going to be eaten in one serving (think beverages, smaller packages of cookies or chips, energy bars)—and if the caloric number only refers to one serving, you’ll have to do a little math to get the right caloric number.

About calories in general, while they are important to monitor for weight loss and weight maintenance goals, remember, it’s just a measurement of energy from the fat, carbohydrates, and protein contained in a particular food item. The nutrients contained in a food are equally or even more important. “Many Americans consume more calories than they need without meeting recommended intakes for a number of nutrients,” the FDA says. Look for calories that also deliver high nutrition. Recommended caloric intake varies by age, size, activity level, and gender—generally around 2,000 calories for an adult woman and 2,500 for an adult man. Talk to your healthcare practitioner to find what is right for you and your health goals.

In the Middle

Important information lies in the middle of the nutrition facts label—especially when it comes to disease prevention or risk. They are the amount of fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, and protein found in the food.


Nutrition facts list total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggest keeping fat intake to 30 percent or less of your total calorie intake—with saturated fat intake at 10 percent or less and trans fat intake as low as you possibly can. Based on a 2,000-calorie diet, the target fat-calorie range is 400 to 700 calories or 44 to 78 grams.

Unfortunately, unsaturated fat—the healthiest kind of fat that comes mostly from plant and marine sources—is not always listed, but it is included in the total fat number on the nutrition facts label. So if you are interested in boosting your intake of omega-3 fatty acids—perhaps the healthiest kind of unsaturated fat—the label probably will not give you that specific information. You’ll have to shop based on your own knowledge of foods that contain omega-3s such as tuna or salmon, as well as nuts, flaxseeds, and dark green leafy vegetables. Also, a healthy unsaturated fat such as olive oil—rich in omega-9 fatty acids—will typically have monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat content listed on the label, but will have nothing to indicate how much of that fat is from omega-9 fatty acids. Read the labels closely and perhaps do some additional research on foods that contain healthy fats prior to going to the market.

Saturated fat comes mainly from animal sources and may contribute to heart disease—although it’s found in plant sources such as coconut oil and palm oil, too. (That said, new research shows that saturated fat from plant and grass-fed animal sources in moderate amounts may not contribute to heart disease.) Regardless, fats are caloric and keeping saturated fat levels to moderate levels is wise. The American Heart Association suggests no more than 12 to 13 grams of saturated fat per day (based on a 2,000 calorie diet). Checking the saturated fat content is a great idea to help keep your intake of these fats in the healthy range.

Trans fats are universally unhealthy; they increase your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Eating trans fats increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke—it is associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. But beware, even when the nutrition facts label says “Zero Trans Fats,” the item may still contain trans fats. That’s because manufacturers are only required to list trans fats when the content is 0.5 grams or greater per serving. Check the ingredient label for “partially hydrogenated oils” or “shortening” to be sure. Foods such as crackers, cookies, cakes, frozen pies, and other baked goods, as well as snack foods, margarines, coffee creamers, refrigerated dough, and ready-made frostings often contain trans fats.


Your body uses cholesterol, a special kind of fat, to make hormones, bile, cell membranes, and other essential substances. The body can manufacture the amount it needs, so there’s no daily requirement. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend a daily cholesterol limit of 200 to 300 milligrams.


Too much sodium can raise blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease. Interestingly, the bulk of sodium intake comes from prepared and packaged foods—not table salt. Be sure to read the label. U.S Dietary Guidelines suggests 2,300 mg or less of sodium per day—and 1,500 mg or less for those over age 51.

Total Carbohydrates:

The nutrition facts label lists total carbs in a food item as well as the amount of carbs from fiber—and from sugar. Pay attention here, especially if you have diabetes.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that carbohydrates make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories. As most of us know, all carbs are not created equal. Choose carbs from quality, whole-grain sources to get the best nutrition. Scan the ingredients and avoid grain products with words that start with enriched (this usually means the grain has been refined—stripped of the germ and bran, which contain most of the grain’s nutrients and fiber).


Fiber is more important than you may think. It helps stabilize blood sugar, cholesterol, and keeps your bowel movements regular. Who doesn’t want that? Aim to get 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day. Typically, look for 3 grams or more of fiber per grain food item.


The nutrition facts label is tricky when it comes to sugar. Sugars are all grouped together—the label provides only the total amount of sugar. It does not distinguish between a naturally occurring sugar from fructose (from fruit), lactose (from milk), maltose (from grains), or added refined sugar. Naturally occurring sugars from whole foods are generally tolerated better by the body because the sugar spike is tempered by fiber and other nutrients. Refined added sugars are best avoided or minimized.

Whatever the source, you want to keep sugar intake low—under 25 grams and lower for diabetics. And definitely check the ingredient label to identify the added sugars. In addition to the word sugar, other words like sweetener (corn sweetener, etc.), syrup (brown rice syrup, etc.), and ingredients ending in –ose (glucose, etc.) are often used instead of sugar. And of course, honey and agave are forms of sugar too. Common refined sugar or sugar that is derived from sugarcane has a host of synonyms including brown sugar, cane crystals, cane sugar, crystal dextrose, evaporated cane juice, raw sugar, and white sugar, to name a few.

If any of these are at the top of the ingredients list, or several of them are anywhere in the ingredients list—the item probably contains too much sugar. Go easy or bypass it!

Similar to trans fats, when the nutrition facts label claims a food contains “zero” sugar, beware. The product may still contain sugar as the FDA only requires manufacturers to list sugars that total 0.5 grams or more. Check the ingredient label to be sure.

No Sugar Added:

When you see “No Sugar Added” on the front of a food label, don’t be misled. Read the nutrition facts—it simply means that no additional sugar was added—but the product could be filled with naturally occurring sugar. Or it may be sweetened with a low-calorie artificial sweetener (such as aspartame, saccharin, sucralose—a problem for many), a sugar alcohol (such as sorbitol or xylitol—which can cause mild gastric discomfort), or a more natural low-calorie sweetener like stevia.


The general recommendation for protein is about 56 grams per day for the average sedentary man and 46 grams per day for the average sedentary woman. There are about 7 grams of protein in one ounce of cooked meat and about 7 grams of protein in a quarter cup of nuts. While nuts do contain protein, fiber, a host of nutrients and healthy fats, be careful, as they are often caloric!

At the Bottom

The bottom of the nutrition facts label gives you a listing of important nutrients and the percentage of the daily value they fulfill based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Food manufacturers are required to list vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Some manufacturers will voluntarily list more nutrients to accentuate high nutritional value in a food item. As a general rule, 10 percent or more of a particular nutrient per serving is high and indicative of a nutrient-dense food—a good choice!


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